As the Christmas tree harvest gets underway, leaders of a new promotional program are preparing to collect checkoff fees from farmers for the first time.
While slumping participation doomed voluntary programs in the past, board members of the nationwide Christmas Tree Promotion Board expect most growers will comply with the mandatory assessment of 15 cents per tree.
“It’s backed up by the USDA, so I think most people will take it seriously,” said Mark Arkills, a board member and production manager for Holiday Tree Farms, a major tree grower based in Corvallis, Ore.
The program’s staff has been compiling a database of contact information for eligible tree growers around the U.S. and will soon send instructions for paying the checkoff fee, said Tim O’Connor, the board’s executive director.
“We’ve been scouring the industry to get every name we can get,” he said.
Most farmers will hopefully view the payments — which will be due by mid-February 2016 — as an investment in the industry, which is competing with artificial trees from China, board members said.
“It just seems absolutely necessary for the long-term lifetime of our industry,” said Betty Malone, a board member and owner of Sunrise Tree Farm near Philomath, Ore.
The board will conduct random and targeted audits to ensure growers are properly paying their fees, since the program has the authority to subpoena and review business records, O’Connor said.
“We have a lot to learn yet because we’ve never gone through our collection process,” he said.
Farmers who don’t pay their fees are subject to civil penalties, though the exact amounts have yet to be determined, he said.
The goal is to ensure everyone in the industry is paying their fair share, which is what distinguishes the mandatory program from past efforts, O’Connor said. “Free riders always bring down a voluntary program.”
The board expects to raise about $2 million a year for research and promotion, but it’s currently operating on a line of credit and pre-payments of checkoff fees from some growers, said Jim Heater, a board member and owner of Silver Mountain Christmas Trees in Sublimity, Ore.
“We have to watch our pennies, because we’re not going to be a real big checkoff,” he said.
Once the checkoff funds begin coming in, the board will begin reviewing proposals from advertising agencies for the most effective ways of promoting the crop, said Arkills.
Consumer focus groups of millennials and artificial tree buyers show that the main challenge for real Christmas trees is they’re perceived to be more difficult to acquire, take home and set up, O’Connor said.
However, real trees have an advantage in the family experience that’s associated with picking and cutting them, he said.
To compare, taking an artificial tree out of the attic or basement isn’t much of a family event, he said. “It gives us something the artificial tree can never do.”
While this year has focused on building the structure of the checkoff program, in 2016 experts will use such information to craft a message that will motivate consumers, said Malone. “It’s an activity that really does bring people together.”